Walking For Thinking

Olivia Schläpfer Colmer, Ph.D.
May 2023

"Man is still an emotional reactive product of nature, and he is responsive to nature, in spite of protestations to the contrary. The anxiety that starts regression appears to be related more to a disharmony between man and nature than to a disharmony between man and his fellow man, such as war” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 1978, p. 279)

I have walked more in the last year than I have walked in what seems to be a decade. 8 months ago I moved from Miami, Florida to my native country Switzerland. I am living in the mountains, surrounded by endless nature and alpine terrain. It is hard not to get outside (even when it’s cold) when there is so much to see, explore and discover. Walking is one way to do it.

In Europe walking is a primary form of transportation and therefore a cultural experience. Also, it is not unusual to see people walk alone or with someone as a way of social interaction or exercise.

Unlike a big city like Miami where it is constantly buzzing with people, shops, beaches and a sizzling nightlife, a small mountain city in Europe is everything a city like Miami is not… and vice versa. Each has advantages and disadvantages, or what I like to tell my clients: every choice has a cost. Where I lived in Miami there was less possibility to walk because there is little landscape left, and trails are hard to come by – and I lived next to the largest park in the city! Not to mention the weather is very hot most of the year and spending time in the shade, in a pool or in the ocean is often preferable to a sweaty walk.

In Miami I walked a lot in my neighborhood because I have two dogs, albeit that walk was repetitive and limited. It wasn’t until I arrived in the mountains of Davos, Switzerland where my walking turned into a hobby, a daily habit of mine, and in many ways replaced some of my other workouts. Walking has slowly become my “sport” and one I started to embrace and love. It is a form of exercise, gives me fresh air, and is less harmful to my joints than certain other forms of exercise. Where I live, there happen to be many different mountains and trails to explore. You don’t have to walk the same route all the time, although I have discovered several “favorite” walking routes in my time here.

I have been an athlete for as long as I can remember, having played competitive tennis throughout my childhood and young adulthood. I ran for over two decades having completed two marathons and several half marathons. I did high intensive interval training workouts for years in the gym, and I still road cycle and ride horseback. I basically love any sport that gets my heart rate up, challenges me and tests my limits.

With that said, walking has given me something new; something other sports don’t offer in the same way. It slows me down, it grounds me, it makes me observe my surroundings, and mostly it makes me think. Walking has a calming effect on the brain and body and therefore stimulates thinking… wonder… and imagination. I believe that our best thinking is done when we are calm. When we are emotional we are reactive, and our ability to think is diminished.

As a therapist I am guided by a theory of human behavior known as Bowen theory. Dr. Bowen believed that anxiety is generated not within individuals but from our relationship systems. In brief, Dr. Bowen stressed that to feel calmer we need to look at our relationships. When we are anxious we often focus on wanting to change other people, because if we can calm the people around us, we can relax too. This attempt more often than not fails (or it only works in the short term) and in contrast makes you (and others) more anxious.

Dr. Bowen believed that when we can manage ourselves better in our own relationships (e.g., with our partners, family, co-workers etc.) we will calm down and most likely others around us will too (anxiety is contagious after all!). If a person can think and act for him or herself in an anxious environment, this person’s sense of self will be less dependent on others for approval and acceptance.

To work on your own self to be a better, more mature human being in your hardest relationships, is what ultimately brings down your own (and others) anxiety. Dr. Bowen’s theory is about the study of human behavior and the family over multi generations.

The application of it is a lifelong process, not a quick fix where tools learned in therapy can be applied after a few sessions. The majority of the work happens in real life (not in isolation) when you work (over and over) on bringing your best self to your most difficult relationships.

In order for any of this to happen you have to think about your relationships, your own reactions to others, and begin to observe your emotions (both in real time and in reflection). How do you evaluate your own automatic behaviors? How do you then interrupt the automatic behavior? This requires thinking so you can thoughtfully respond to important situations in your life. Thinking about your life choices, plans, dreams, and ideas need presence and thought, not big emotions that lead to reactions and impulsivity.

In the biography “Steve Jobs” written by Walter Isaacson, Jobs shares about his love for walking. In fact, he was known to do almost all of his important business meetings with people during a walk instead of in an office setting. He walked a lot, alone and while doing big negotiations with others. He described doing his best thinking and idea development during walks in the Palo Alto landscape.

Walking gets the blood flowing and is a rhythmic movement. It slows down your breath yet keeps it steady. When you spend time walking in nature you can observe the stillness around you. I love watching the trees, the skies, or the many different shades of grassy fields and leafy canopies. I enjoy listening to water running down a stream hitting rocks, or to the cow and sheep bells ringing to their movements eating grass. I like smelling the wood and pinecones of the trees, and I even find joy in the smell of cow manure because it reminds me of my childhood.

The mountain flowers and moss that grow in various soil, the birds singing, the squirrels looking for food…all of that makes me want to slow down, take deep breaths, and enjoy the peaceful feeling it gives me. When I’m lucky I may see a few deer, foxes, sheep, eagles, horses, or cows. All my senses are invigorated when I am walking, and nature is at its best in its most natural preserved state. Nature has no clock, no meetings to run to, no deadlines to make, yet there is a process that quietly and naturally unfolds.

When I can match myself with nature, my thinking seems to flow organically. I have had the opportunity to reflect on many things such as: how I ended up (back) in the mountains of Switzerland, past habits I am working on changing, what my next plans and goals are, how to handle a challenging situation with a friend, how to approach and work with my son’s teachers (whom he seems to aggravate quite a bit), and the list goes on…

We live in a world that is fast paced with technology as our primary means of communication for many (most) things. We live in a world of TikTok, dating apps, and online calendars that alert us to our next appointment, flooded in a deluge of attention seeking distractions. We are awakened by our cell phones only to grab it and check our emails, social media and text messages first thing in the morning.

In a world where thinking is often replaced with automaticity, and our patience and time runs thin because “there is just so much to do” each day, human’s anxiety levels has generally increased. As efficient as technology is to make the world operate as it does, the cost in my opinion has been the wellbeing of its people. We are more stressed, and we are more disconnected from others because we are to a large degree fixated on technology, which takes us away from genuine connection and a sense of belonging.

Our thinking today often relies on automatic behavior and emotional reactions. In other words, thinking doesn’t happen thoroughly enough anymore. Emotional reactions mostly lead to irrational and rash decision making. There is less thoughtfulness and more thoughtlessness. Instead of evolving as a society, we regress. How can we re-create space and a calm context in our lives that would foster better thinking?

For those who live in a city or an environment where nature is not readily accessible, perhaps there are ways to incorporate walking in the city and finding small pockets of nature in a park, a botanical garden, or a nursery. In Miami, I liked visiting nurseries not only because I love plants and gardening, but also to simply walk the rows of plants and flowers. It in many ways accomplished what I am describing in the mountains; I slow down, observe what’s around me (in this case plants, flowers, bees, birds and butterflies), and appreciate nature and its calming effect.

Another way is to create a space in your home, for example, with plants, art, salt lamps, incense or candles, a yoga mat for practice or meditation, calming music and anything else that resembles nature and represents your style and spirit.

Since coming to a more serene environment, I have realized how I am able to disconnect from technology and the helter-skelter of city life while finding ways to be calmer. Walking has played a pivotal role in helping me slow down; no longer rushing from one thing to the next, and instead freeing up time to think. I will make sure to intentionally bring with me some of the habits I have learned here in Switzerland. Those little thoughts and moments that calm me and free up thinking must stay with me when I leave the mountains and move back to a busier place.